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FY 2004 Budget Roll-Out
President Bush Announces 'Project BioShield' at NIH During Visit

By Rich McManus

Photos by Bill and Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

President George W. Bush visited NIH on Feb. 3, touring the Vaccine Research Center and delivering a 20-minute address before a packed Natcher auditorium on Project BioShield, a roughly $6 billion, 10-year effort described in his FY 2004 budget that aims to protect the American public from various weapons of bioterrorism. He repeatedly hailed the intellectual power and dedication of the NIH workforce, and earned a particularly robust ovation when he announced his administration's intention to bolster funds addressing HIV/AIDS in Africa: "We weep for those who suffer on the continent of Africa, and we intend to do something about it."

Continued...

The President, accompanied on the dais by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and by Tom Ridge, new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, had come to Natcher after touring NIH's premier vaccine research facility in Bldg. 40 with NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Dr. Gary Nabel, who directs the Vaccine Research Center and whose work on Ebola virus has intrigued not only President Bush, but also Vice President Dick Cheney, who received an update on bioterrorism during an unannounced visit to NIH last December.

President George W. Bush at NIH on Feb. 3

President Bush was effusive in his praise of NIH leadership. "I thank Elias Zerhouni for his fine, fine leadership," he said, to loud applause, then quipped, "You know, when I picked him, I thought he would do okay. He's far exceeded my expectations. He's really, really a good man who is honoring our country with his leadership. Tony Fauci, of course, I've known him for a long time...He's one of the generals in the war against HIV/AIDS...Gary Nabel is with us...he just took us on a really interesting tour. I asked him if this is the best in the world, and he said, 'You bet, not only do we have the best equipment in the world, Mr. President, we've got the best people in the world.'" Bush thanked all employees of NIH, FDA, CDC, HHS and DHS — all of whose leaders were on hand in the auditorium: "Thank you for working long hours that enable me to go out to the countryside and say to the American people, 'There's a lot of good folks working long, hard hours to protect you, and do the best we can do to make sure America is safe and secure.'"

Secretary Thompson introduced the President, noting that "all of us today mourn the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and her crew." He underscored an NIH link to the mission: one of the many experiments conducted aboard Columbia was a joint NIH-NASA study of brain structure and function in rats. He also warned of the modern peril of bioterrorism: "One vial (of a pathogen) smuggled across our borders could bring a day of horror like none we've ever known."

The President peers through a microscope in Bldg. 40 at cells transfected with expression vectors encoding specific fragments of Ebola virus or HIV that caused damage to cells, compared to modified versions where the toxicity was removed, as an example of how vaccine safety can be improved. Bush is accompanied by (from l) NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, VRC director Dr. Gary Nabel, and Dr. Ganesh Lakshmanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nabel's lab.

Bush received a standing ovation, saying he was "delighted to be here at the National Institutes of Health, a center of excellence, a center of the brilliance of the American people. It is a place where so many people do work every day to help save lives...NIH is a great credit to America."

He remembered the Columbia astronauts, but assured "the cause in which they died will continue — America's journey into space will go on. The spirit of modern science embodied in our space program can be found here at NIH."

Turning to the new threat of bioterrorism, he said, "Now our scientists have been called to meet a different kind of challenge: man's efforts to use diseases as weapons of war and terror. This threat has placed research scientists at the center of our mission to defend the American people. It has put NIH squarely in the midst of our war to defend America and to defeat international terrorism. With focus and determination and necessary resources, this government will act before dangers are upon us."

President Bush's visit on Feb. 3 was the first official visit by a sitting President since President Bill Clinton came to NIH on June 9, 1999, to dedicate the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center, known as Bldg. 40.

Bush paused to recognize members of Congress in attendance, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Reps. Chris Cox (R-Calif., who chairs the select committee on homeland security), Jim Turner (D-Tex., a former member of the Texas state senate) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md., whose district includes NIH). Surgeon General Richard Carmona was also on hand, as were Dr. Mark McClellan, new head of the FDA, and Dr. Julie Gerberding, who leads CDC.

Bush pointed out that since Sept. 11, 2001, America has been reawakened to the evil intentions of its enemies, and that the government's first responsibility is to defend the nation. "The kind of men who would seize planes filled with innocent people and crash them into buildings would not hesitate to use biological or chemical or nuclear weapons. They wouldn't hesitate at all. They don't value life like we value life in America," he said. "They don't see every life as precious, like we see every life as precious in America."

He spoke briefly of Iraq, noting that "if the dictator does not disarm, if he doesn't get rid of his weapons of mass destruction, then the United States will lead a coalition to disarm him."

Bush takes the stage with Ridge (l) and Thompson.

Bush first introduced Project BioShield, a plan for research and production of drugs and vaccines to combat bioterrorism, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28. "My budget requests almost $6 billion to quickly make available safer and more effective vaccines and treatments against agents like smallpox, anthrax, botulinum toxin, Ebola and plague...We must rebuild America's capacity to produce vaccines by committing the federal government to the purchase of medicines that combat bioterror."

He continued, "Under Project BioShield, the government will have the spending authority to purchase these vaccines in huge amounts, sufficient to meet any emergency that may come." He predicted a better and safer smallpox vaccine, antibodies to treat botox, and "sophisticated devices that can confirm a case of anthrax infection almost instantly." Spinoff discoveries are also anticipated, he said, as has typically been the case when other large ventures of scientific discovery have been mounted. He pledged to share America's harvest of new knowledge with the world, as is planned with U.S. gains in the management of HIV/AIDS.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) looks on as Zerhouni greets a visiting dignitary.

Bush concluded, "I look forward to working with the United States Congress to get Project BioShield out of its committees, onto the floor, onto my desk, so you all can work on behalf of the American people, so you can use your God-given talents, your fantastic brains, your clear vision to better protect America. This is the right course of action. This is what we owe the American people. And this is what we will deliver."

Bush left the stage to another ovation, and passed through the first row of the auditorium, greeting agency heads and politicians. As he left the hall, he looked back and bade, "Thank you all," with a wave goodbye.

More details on Project BioShield are available at www.whitehouse.gov. Among its provisions are that the NIAID director would have increased authority and flexibility to award contracts and grants for R&D on medical countermeasures. The authority would permit more rapid hiring of technical experts, and quicker procurement of items needed for research. FDA also would gain emergency authority to use promising medical countermeasures that have not yet undergone formal review for full licensure.

The President's helicopter and limousine await him at a landing pad on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center.

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